Missed Opportunities of Training Syrian Activists

Thomas McGee – August 1, 2013 – NB: Thanks are due to the many Syrian activists who gladly shared their perspectives on this subject over the course of recent months. Their views have undoubtedly shaped my own and could, I believe, usefully inform current implementation policies.

‘It was nice. I benefitted from the hotel and time to relax away from the chaos back home,’ admitted my Syrian friend as I asked him to evaluate the media training course he had just completed in Istanbul. More candid than the usual feedback of those hoping to be invited to participate in the next round of workshops, his response reveals something of the reality of many training programs for Syrian civil society activists.

Training workshops have become a key pillar in the international response to the ongoing Syria crisis, with an industry of trainers and implementers emerging in neighboring countries, principally Turkey. Beyond the psychological benefit of a ‘change of scene’ for individual activists, it can be argued that there is an intrinsic good in supporting civil activity and its local Syrian practitioners during the current period of instability, particularly those committed to values of inter-communal coexistence. All the same, it is difficult not to wonder if we cannot expect more tangible results from such training programs. According to activists I have spoken to over the course of sustained research on Syria, the reason for present shortcomings is a threefold failure: to develop appropriate content material, to make it usefully applicable, and to select the right participants.

The wrong people

My friend continued, ‘I didn’t really see the need for me to participate in this program. This is not my field of work. I work as a translator, not in media. Therefore, I thought I should leave my place to somebody else.’ However, the movement he belongs to encouraged him to accept as it would give prestige to their organization. ‘Now I will return to Syria as a superstar,’ he jokes, ‘and we can say “Europe” supports our movement, and we will seem better than other groups doing the same thing as us. This is the true value of training nowadays.’

Inviting individuals to training without properly establishing their role and sphere of influence in the entities to which they belong certainly reduces the potential impact of such programs. Activists have further reported to me the tensions with established actors that can occur when freshly trained participants return ‘to the field’ eager to implement their newly acquired expertise in areas they had hardly been involved in prior to training. Beyond this, program designers are faced with a policy decision. Is it better to invite a disparate cohort of participants from multiple entities in Syria — in the interest of spreading appreciation for the culture of civil society as widely as possible — or rather, to select a well-integrated network of individuals from a few chosen groups — in order to maximize impact on the ground, and ease of measuring it? At present, I would support the second option.

Undoubtedly, the current security situation presents significant practical challenges in contacting and assessing candidates for out-of-country training. However, since the pool of potential participants is already often restricted to those with reasonable communications access, might it not be possible to hold an initial training phrase electronically as a means of identifying the most appropriate participants to invite for further training outside Syria?

Some organizations, notably the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria (CCSDS) — one of the first groups to hold workshops in Gaziantep (one hour from the Syrian border) instead of transporting participants away to Istanbul — has begun experimenting with e-tutorials as a low-cost complement to face-to-face training. Engaging with activists through electronic interactive workshops, therefore, better informs programming for follow-up training in Gaziantep.

The wrong content

The issue of content was also evident at the aforementioned training. A citizen journalist from Idlib active since the revolution’s first months commented, ‘the workshop was pitched at the wrong level for me. The problem is that, though I am not formally trained in this field, we have all acquired many of the techniques being taught through simply doing this work daily for more than two years. The irony is that if we did not know this stuff, there is no way we could have kept doing our work until now, and be selected for the training.’ The vital task is therefore to deliver training material that is both necessary and applicable to the present situation in Syria.

Lack of Programmatic Application

While raising awareness of civil society tools may be considered intrinsically valuable to a population in transition, training on its own is of limited immediate use. According to the analogy of one activist, ‘teaching us how to fish is great, but if you’re not going to give us a fishing rod or a net at the end, why did you host us for three days in a luxury hotel to study fishing practices?’ Instead, training should be part of a long-term programmatic strategy to establish meaningful relations between activists and institutions supportive of civil society, with a view toward implementation, or capacity building, of activities on the ground. This would avoid the sentiment activists sometimes have of ‘going away empty-handed’ even when sometimes provided with equipment (laptops, cameras, etc.).

Examples of training leading to meaningful implementation include organizations for the documentation of human rights abuses coaching activists to become affiliated monitors, and providing reliable reports of the rights situation on-the-ground. Similarly, some groups giving media training workshops have subsequently supported the citizen journalist participants by acting as a kind of press agency to reproduce and circulate their work.

When there is no implementation follow-up beyond the workshops, training remains abstract. Some activists complain that they are unable to apply skills acquired in training on ‘local administration’ or ‘conflict resolution,’ as success in both of these fields is conditional upon availability of resources. Indeed, an attendee of one conflict resolution training course commented ‘what better way for us to minimize localized conflict than to provide assistance to those squabbling over essential supplies. We were taught how to mediate such disputes diplomatically, but the ultimate solution has to be in resource distribution.’Others argued that they could play an important role in the administration of relief were it not for the programmatic distinction between spheres of civil society and humanitarian work: ‘it seems that as Syrians, the world would prefer us to play our role through civil society dialogue while relief provision goes through international and regime channels. Are we only trusted as recipients of aid, but never as its handlers?’ This member of a tansiqiyya (coordination group) in the northern town of Tel Abyad believes that supporting Syrians with specialized training to play an active role in delivery of humanitarian assistance is the best way to empower those who believe in civil peace in the country.

It is important to bear in mind the detrimental effect that out-of-country training can sometimes have on emergent civil society projects being organized within Syria. Favoring those who can travel, it risks reducing and distorting the value of workshops organized by groups inside in the eyes of the local population. These groups perhaps know better how to design a program to respond to the community’s needs, yet lack the basic support required to enhance their capacity. Their work contributes to enhancing the capacity of Syrian society in general, rather than isolating select individuals for special attention.

No doubt, promotion of a culture of peaceful association and civic engagement is important in Syria, particularly now in order to preserve something of the fabric of society. This is all the more necessary due to the displacement of many promising activists to dismal camp environments in neighboring countries and elsewhere. Yet it is important to ensure that activists see benefits of training exceeding a ‘rest and rehabilitation’ retreat. Therefore, workshops must be made relevant to their participants, who in turn ought themselves to be able to make a meaningful contribution to the communities to which they belong. Support should be provided, including facilitation of Syrian activists sharing best practice, as part of a sustainable, long-term policy of actively engaging with civil actors from Syria.

Thomas McGee is a Master’s candidate in Kurdish Studies at the University of Exeter, specializing in human rights in Syria and Kurdish rights.